Omaha Battalion Chiefs Sue to Block Fire Chief’s Appointment

Two candidates for the fire chief’s job in Omaha have filed suit claiming Mayor Jean Stothert violated the city charter and city code by appointing Interim Fire Chief Dan Olsen as fire chief. Battalion Chiefs Robb Gottsch and Dan Stolinski filed the suit today seeking a court order declaring Chief Olsen’s promotion to be void.

According to the suit, Chief Olsen ranked sixth on a list of eight candidates while Chiefs Gottsch and Stolinski ranked among the top four. The city charter and city code limit the mayor’s discretion in promoting to the top four ranked candidates.

Chief Olsen was added to the top four candidates after one out-of-town candidate, Spokane, Washington, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, withdrew in October and a second, retired Colorado Springs Fire Chief Christopher Riley, was eliminated by the mayor in December.

Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch insisted the mayor was within her rights to appoint Chief Olsen. He was quoted by the Omaha World Herald as saying:

  • “The rule of four is that the mayor has four people to choose from. If the person withdraws on the first day, you’re not talking about the rule of four, you’re talking about the rule of three. They’re trying to state in this petition that the mayor should follow the rule of two.”

Omaha Firefighters IAFF Local 385 President Steve LeClair released a statement saying:

  • “Local 385 demands transparency and fairness, in all promotional processes, department-wide. With inconsistency in the interpretation of the rule of four, it is impossible for me to assure our members that the promotional processes in which they will one day participate are fair, transparent and impartial. This filing is necessary to maintain the integrity and validity of all promotions within the Omaha Fire Department.”

At the center of the case appear to be two diametrically opposed questions:

If a mayor is limited to selecting candidates from a set number of highest ranked candidates:

  1. If a candidate withdraws or is removed from the list should the next eligible candidate be added?
  2. Can the mayor simply eliminate higher-ranked candidates on the list until she can get to a lower ranking candidate of her choosing?

The city code seems to address this, although in a politically savvy way:

  • “In no event shall a name be replaced if, in the discretion of the personnel director, such a replacement would result in the merit system being manipulated for the purpose of getting to a certain individual on the list of eligibles”

So in other words, so long as the mayor’s personnel director concludes that the mayor was not trying to manipulate the list to reach Chief Olsen, then he could be added.

I’m not sure if it is reassuring or depressing to know that this kind of political gamesmanship happens in a place as seemingly far from the stereotypical places we all associate with big city corruption as can possibly be. Omaha, Nebraska… seriously?

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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